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The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

(Notre-Dame de Paris)

Victor Hugo

1831

(Love for a young gypsy woman allows an ugly man to rise above the world’s hatred of him, and to show his inner beauty).

Charles Laughton as Quasimodo in the 1939 movie directed by William Dieterle. This and other stills can be found on the IMDB page for the film.

Beauty and beast stories are thousands of years old. Here is how they generally go: a beautiful maiden somehow must associate with a character of less-than-alluring appearance, such as an animal, a god in disguise, or a magically uglified human. The girl eventually sees beyond the grotesque exterior to the real person inside, and falls in love. Then very often the whole moral is promptly compromised by the male character’s transformation into the handsome prince. Ah—it’s really about outward appearance (and wealth) after all! I write this with a smirk, as in fact those stories are not claiming that outward appearance should have no importance, but just that love can be demonstrated to be rooted in deeper things if we remove good looks as an experiment. (By the way, we’re generally talking here about removing the man’s good looks. Removing the woman’s good looks is far rarer in literature, as any student of human behavior could have predicted.)

Victor Hugo, perhaps the wisest of the great French novelists, wrote the perfect beauty and beast story—indeed, could do so only because he was wise. He understood beauty and was true to it in all its manifestations; and he understood ugliness and was fearless and trenchant in portraying its effects and implications. The novel is fundamentally about beauty: of Notre Dame cathedral, of Quasimodo its deaf mutant bell-ringer, of Esmeralda the gypsy girl. The beauty is very different in the three examples, except in fragility, which they share—these three beautiful things, a building, a beast, and a belle. And their fragility is due to ugliness, which likewise takes diverse forms.

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The Little Prince

(Le Petit Prince)

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

1943

(A little man leaves his tiny planet to explore the universe, only to discover that the most important things in life can be found anywhere.)

Watercolor illustration by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry from chapter 26 of Le Petit Prince. Original drawings, watercolors (though not this one!), and pages from the only known handwritten draft of the novelette are housed in The Morgan Library, New York. Saint-Exupéry wrote and illustrated this story in New York City and Long Island following the Nazi invasion of France.

As hackneyed as the term “gem” is in the description of short and delightful books, The Little Prince has got to be the epitome. What other modern story is so small, simple, beautiful, and valuable? It radiates purpose modestly, its convincing naivete managing somehow to soften sharp lessons within a sweet and personal story. An actual gem, however, can be valued by anyone, even the unworthy—those who value it only because they can use it to get something else. The Little Prince has no such utility. Its essence is a rebellion against the importance we tend to place on utility. If we find ourselves appreciating The Little Prince, it can only be because we see some light in the book’s countercultural perspective—because we love this small meandering tale according to its true worth.

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Songs and Sonets

John Donne

d. 1631

(An earthy, imaginative, thoughtful soul reveals his view of love, steeped in metaphor and emotion.)

Crop of Francesca da Rimini with her lover Paolo, by the Scottish painter William Dyce (1837).  This painting can be seen in the National Galleries of Scotland. Though not quite as scandalous as Paolo, who is here courting his brother’s wife, John Donne did sneak around with his master’s daughter against his will, eventually marrying her.

Donne is a master of love poetry– some say the best of them all– because he combines rich experience with deep and varied thought.  The whole person is writing here, his intellect and his heart in a powerfully effective, if strained, cooperation.  He is at once philosophical and romantic, a learned dreamer, an impassioned thinker.  On one hand these poems are often acutely emotional and physical, full of sweat and tears. Love and death are often intimately associated, by virtue of heartbreak as well as the sheer weight of true love itself. But at the same time the poems are bursting with erudite imagination, especially loose analogy and illustration (“conceits”) from physical science, alchemy, astronomy, and ancient and medieval philosophical and theological ideas. Donne sees no problem in linking his love to events and bodies of astronomic or even divine proportions. He employs so many characteristic devices, has so many surprising and intriguing perspectives, that his poems can be enjoyed just for these, even if we knew nothing of love.  But of course, love is the main thing on his mind… really the only thing on his mind.  Everything else is playing a supporting role. For those who think of Donne as the Reverend Doctor, the dean, the spiritual teacher… you will see that person here mainly in his cleverness, his breadth of education, a few metaphors, and of course his deep affinity for things spiritual.  Otherwise, here our Donne is a much more earthy bloke– here he is Jack Donne, the lover.  Then again, perhaps there is more to the continuity. The man who is first fascinated by women and drama and then later by God and church, is a man of fierce and fervent heart, seeking a worthy object of devotion. (more…)

One of Cleopatra’s Nights

(Une nuit de Cléopâtre)

Théophile Gautier

1838

(A young hunter is willing to die to be with queen Cleopatra for just one evening.)

Alexandre Cabanel’s 1887 painting, Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Those Condemned To Death (Cléopâtre essayant des poisons sur des condamnés à mort).  It can be seen at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (KMSKA), Antwerp.

Word for word, this little novella (three times the length of a typical short story at about 12,700 words) probably paints the most vibrant description of ancient Egypt in all of literature. This is my favorite aspect of the work, though for others it might be the engaging romantic plot, or the typical though attractive take on the queen’s psychology. It is a simple tale, but richly set and beautifully told.

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“On Taste”

Edmund Burke

1759

(What does it really mean for an opinion to be “a matter of taste”?)

An art museum visitor observing a Jackson Pollock painting; from the blog Art Now and Then, by Jim Lane.

When we say “it’s just a matter of taste”, a bold and negative message lies behind the word “just”.  Whether intended or not, the word creates a whiff of denigration.  We discredit the thing we’re describing, reducing it such that it does not require much attention or respect.  It’s a surefire conversation-ender.  We are in effect saying that the question of whether the food is good, the music inspiring, or the sight beautiful, is not really worthy of discussion.  We are also espousing a momentous philosophical position: that the matter at hand is subjective, in the sense that two individuals considering it may come to contradictory conclusions about it and neither could possibly be justified in criticizing the other.  Probably not very many of us, when we make such a statement, are actually prepared to defend our implicit position, or the accompanying subliminal evaluation.  More likely, we are simply incorporating into our daily language certain assumptions about the world, about truth, about goodness and beauty and love and appreciation and worthiness.  Sometimes we can use quippy phrases because they come easily, whether or not we realize that we are taking a side on something.  In time a fallacious circle is likely to complete itself: someday when we actually consider the matter, we will find ourselves thinking our assumption very likely to be true, simply because our manner of thinking has been shaped by our (and our community’s) manner of speaking.  If we are trained long enough to talk as if something is so, we will tend to think it is so unless we examine our ideas deliberately.

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